Keep the faith in religious freedom

By Daniel Dunkle | Sep 02, 2016

Never talk about politics and religion.

Of course in the newspaper business, we consistently disobey this rule. I had the interesting experience of having religion involved in two of the assignments I covered over the past weekend.

The first was at the Union Fair, where I took pictures of the Blueberry Queen Coronation. As I was walking up to the race track toward the stage where the crowning would take place, the light was slanting just so and I was reminded of the walk at sunset up from the boys' dormitory to the tabernacle at Whited Bible Camp in Bridgewater. It was a dusty dirt path up to the church, and I can still see it clearly in my mind's eye, though I haven't been there since I was in my teens. I can still picture the red seats with stuffing falling out where we sat on the boys' side and listened to the Pentecostal preachers thundering and pleading from the pulpit.

In such a reverie I arrived at the place to take the pictures. I get the impression whenever I attend Union Fair that there is a strong sense of history and tradition. So it's not surprising that there were at least two preachers involved in the program and there was a lengthy opening prayer.

Many public events in this area begin with opening prayers. For the most part, these prayers are Christian and Protestant. If the event is in the city or one of the bigger towns, this stance is likely to be somewhat softened. I have been to public events where those gathered are asked to assume an "attitude of prayer" and the religion is not labeled.

This is part of our culture, particularly in rural areas.

The following evening I attended a talk given by members of the Islamic Center of Maine at the Rockland Congregational Church (I have posted a separate article and photos on this event). First, I would like to note that the turnout of about 130 people for the event shows that there is a strong interest in the topic.

Speaking at this event was Omar Conteh, who explained the five pillars of Islam and some of his basic beliefs as a Muslim.

Omar seemed relaxed and comfortable as a speaker. He used humor to keep the audience engaged. He reminded me of the energetic young preachers and youth ministers of my church upbringing. He spoke with the same sense of joy in sharing his beliefs, the same sense of affection for those who came to listen.

I had expected his beliefs to be very exotic and strange, but instead his words seemed familiar, easy to relate to for someone raised in church. He spoke of believing there is one God, who is sufficient in himself; he spoke of praying; he spoke of fasting to be closer to God; he spoke of pilgrimage. These were all things that existed in my religious traditions growing up, even if they took different forms here and there.

One of the things he said that most struck a chord of familiarity was when he spoke about the Muslim concept of charity. You are to give a portion of what you have extra to care for the poor and the needy and God will bless you. More than that, it is better to give in secret or anonymously, so you are sure you are doing this for God and not for the praise of other people.

There were moments when he was speaking where he was saying almost word-for-word what I had heard from my pastors and parents growing up.

That said, there is no way around conflict when it comes to religion. If I believe absolutely in a specific path to God, it's a waste of time to ask me to forsake that path or accept another. It is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, motivation for a human being.

As Omar said, "We don't have to agree."

But in learning more about him, in talking to him and shaking his hand, I see we are more alike than different.

What an event like this reinforces for me is why it is so important that our society never infringe on anyone's freedom to practice their faith. It is to our credit that we enjoy religious freedom in this country, but it is a freedom that should not be taken for granted. The reason we can break bread with people of different faiths is that we do so without fear of being forced to give up our own beliefs and traditions.

As long as your freedom doesn't take away my freedom, we're OK.

I know people who hate the term "separation of church and state," because they fear that will bring an end to public prayers like those at the Union Fair.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with these prayers at public events.

But I believe that separation is crucial to maintaining freedom for all.

Omar said he can practice his religion better here than he could in his own country (Gambia in West Africa), and that it's easier to be a Muslim in America than in Syria. I believe him.

Hopefully, this country will never lose faith in one of its strongest values.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Sep 02, 2016 13:09

"The reason we can break bread with people of different faiths is that we do so without fear of being forced to give up our own beliefs and traditions." is certainly true.  Have learned from those who believe differently; while developing positive relationships.

Posted by: Kenneth O Frederic | Sep 02, 2016 10:46

Thank you, Dan, for this.  I hope, had I had the experience, I might have done something similar.  Freedom OF religion was never meant to be freedom FROM religion.  I've toured the catacombs in Rome and I shudder that we have people trying to drive religion underground here in the U. S.  I can't think there is any tolerable motive behind it.

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